Historians slate PM over 'debt to Raj' speech

July 29, 2005

Indian academics have attacked the Prime Minister for rewriting history by publicly acknowledging the "beneficial consequences" of the Raj.

For 57 years, Indian history textbooks have portrayed the British Empire as an unmitigated national tragedy, a story of tyranny, economic plunder and Hindu-Muslim discord caused by a policy of divide and rule.

Now, for the first time, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he recognised India's debt to the Raj - as in many of its most "cherished" institutions such as "modern universities and research laboratories".

Earlier this month, Dr Singh was at Oxford University to receive an honorary doctorate. In his acceptance speech he said: "Our notions of the rule of law, of a constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age-old civilisation met the dominant empire of the day... "Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions derived from the British-Indian administration, and they have served the country well."

But academics have joined political leaders in accusing him of "betraying" the anti-colonial legacy of his party - the Indian National Congress - which led the movement for India's independence under Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Irfan Habib, a leading Marxist historian, asked: "Can we forget the loss of lives of millions of Indians in [man-made] famines such as those of 1896-97, 1899-1900 and 1943? The heavy taxation of the poor? The suppression of modern industry by all possible devices? The miserable level of expenditure on health and education? The exclusion of Indians from all high offices and positions of power?"

Tanika Sarkar, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University's Centre for Historical Studies, said the Prime Minister gave "only one side of the picture" and ignored the negative aspects, such as the "famines and suppression of civil liberties".

Some historians accused Dr Singh of "glorifying" colonialism, but others offered praise for attempting a "brave reassessment" of Britain's colonial legacy.

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